The opening of the second concert in the 2018/19 Lunchtime series was one of the more surprising in recent history in that the duo mounted the stage in the usual fashion, full of smiles for the audience, only for Julian Bliss, once his partner was seated, with a grin to appear as if he were some professional boxer about to embark on a quick limbering up before getting down to business. Now, the line between removing the stuffiness which is so often the bane of the classical music scene and distracting gimmickry is a narrow one but here in fact it seemed to herald a serious point, to be taken up later in the recital, about the physical effort needed to play a clarinet. The artist gave a frightening description of the breathing required at times simply to produce a series of notes on the instrument.
So what, one might say, and such a response might have been justified had there not been some fascinating musical results. One expects virtuosity of a high order from the young lions of the present musical scene and the programme was indeed a daunting one but every challenge seemed to me to be met. Perhaps I am mistaken but this quite stunning recital produced clarinet playing of a dynamic range that I cannot remember ever quite hearing before, at least in the works played. In my youth and indeed more recently I seem to remember a sound which was mainly aimed at emphasising the instrument’s rich warmth in the middle and lower ranges, whilst reining in the sharpness at the top. Here there was no such holding back and the result in the two works I had heard a number of times in the past, Poulenc’s Sonata and Brahms Op 120, No .1 was that one was forced to re-assess the dramatic scope of the music.
This was particularly noticeable in the Poulenc. There have been several performances of this work in the last few years in Leicester, performances which largely emphasised the wit and the cool Gallic lyricism typical of the composer. However, and presumably coincidentally, the programme notes this time spoke of the music’s ambiguity, even of its occasional moments of desperation and melancholy, suggesting there to be a somewhat darker side to the work. This is precisely what came across in this performance in its wide dynamic range and the occasional piercing shrillness of the sound. It was a penetrating interpretation indeed.
Similarly the Brahms came across as no perpetually relaxed sunlit world, though there was plenty of that in this performance. There were many breathtakingly beautiful moments, for instance a sublime pianissimo in the slow moment in which even in this intimate hall the silken thread of sound was on the verge of extinction. In the joyous third movement particularly notable was the bell like contribution of the piano. However, it was in the outer movements that the players found a surprising amount of drama in the work without ever undermining its basic lyrical impetus. Increasingly I find myself drawn to the late works of this composer. It seems that here and elsewhere, as in the late piano pieces, now that he had shrugged off the weight of being seen as Beethoven’s successor, he found a rather different voice, one which at times looked forward to the new century rather than backwards to the old. As Bliss suggested, what a benediction for his instrument was this late flowering of this composer’s genius.
That new century was represented in this programme by Debussy’s Premiére Rhapsodie , a test piece but full of the composer’s wonderful responsiveness to the colours offered by an instrument, an offer which both players took up enthusiastically. Sadly , to be honest, I discerned little of that responsiveness in Olah’s Sonata for solo clarinet. Curiously, at a first hearing it was this work which seemed to me more obviously a test piece, setting out a brief set of obstacles to be overcome by the artist. Here they were, of course, triumphantly overcome but much more fun was to be had in the encore, a famous Hungarian czardas which makes no pretence of musical depth but is beloved of violinists wishing to strut their stuff. Well, this duo certainly did that in a transcription for piano and clarinet. After the languorous opening with the piano taking the lead, the headlong chase to the finish took one’s breath away, though not apparently the clarinettist’s. Amazingly he emerged unscathed from what had been indeed a taxing hour’s playing and neither should one forget the pianist who contributed in considerable measure to a memorable concert .